Back to School How-To

Hey there Sunshine!  It’s the middle of the night, going on the very early morning hours. I had a bizarro day (may have witnessed a very injured and mentally unstable young man steal a wheelchair and run away from a hospital ER), and that’s making my anxiety go through the roof tonight. When the Amazingly Awesome Boyfriend was heading off to bed, I had to sit up in front of the TV for a bit doing my deep breathing, because I was sure I was about to have a heart attack.

Oh well, hope your night is going much better!

This whole combination of bizarro situations and ridiculously high anxiety DID remind me that school is starting soon, though. I moved a month into high school to a whole new city, to a newly opened high school. Somehow, my parents thought that the fact that the school was new meant that no one there knew each other yet, so I should have no problem making friends. Had to finish my fifth and final year at a new school back in my hometown. After a few years off, went back to college, only to leave after only getting my one year certificate (instead of the 2-year diploma) due to an incident there. Years after that, went back to university as a “mature student” and spent more than 5 years working on my degrees, only to let anxiety get the best of me and not apply to graduate school.

So believe me when I say that I KNOW back to school anxiety.

The thing is, there are so many different things that can worsen your back to school anxiety: financial woes, social anxiety, moving to a new place, the unknown in general, education itself, fear of the future……….  I keep seeing these articles on how to handle your Back To School Anxiety, but they only have band-aid solutions to things.  Sure, lavender might help you relax, but will it help you save money on school supplies and textbooks? Eating lots of veggies is great for your all-around physical and mental health, but how will that help you meet people? Companion animals are great, but most dorm rooms don’t allow them.

So what’s a student to do?

Hopefully, I can shed a little light on that for ya’ll. I researched things back then for myself, and research them now for friends and roommates. I’m digging through my ancient external hard drive, stacks of old half-used notebooks (I dare you to find a troubled writer who doesn’t have at least half a dozen of these in their home), and my very large pile of Research I Printed To Read Later But Never Did. I’m combing Tumblr blogs (I’ll have links to a few that are super helpful), old PowerPoint presentations, and that forgotten “Stuff For My Blog” folder in my Bookmarks. Basically, I’m digging through all my shit to find that shit that works best for you.

So, I’ll try and pour as much of this anxiety-fuelled awakeness into my research for now. Hopefully, I’ll have some posts for you on this all this week, while you’re getting ready for Back to School.

 

In Hindsight

Ok, so I didn’t do things in what you would call a conventional manner. I took a few years off after high school, went to college for a year, worked for a few years, and then went to university for 5 years. I kind of jumped around the stages of life, and did shit when I was ready for it.

Do I regret any of that? Hell naw!

But there are things I could’ve been doing WHILE I was jumping around that would’ve been so incredibly, totally, unbelievably helpful to my life right now. While I was going through everything in each phase of my life, I sort of focused on one task at a time: college certificate, show up to work on time, write papers, etc….. I never thought to branch out to OTHER things, things that may interest me.

Now, some of these things probably wouldn’t have occurred to me way back when as something I may like. Some of these things, I thought I was actually doing sometimes. And some things are just stuff I wish I had considered, sort of like for a Plan B for my life.

All That Free Stuff In School

Now, I thought I was the MASTER of free stuff on campus. I have given away more t-shirts over the years than I’ve bought in my entire life, thanks to free t-shirts for pretty much everything on campus. I went to events with free food. I never passed up a booth on campus without checking for free things. Years later, I’m still using free pens and highlighters.

I missed so much though!

There were free classes, lectures, and seminars all those years I was a student. I just never paid any mind to then because you can’t bring a class home with you like a t-shirt, or 47 free pens. So I didn’t go to them.

What did I miss out on? Well, there was training in ALL the Microsoft Suite programs. Training in programs for statistics, publishing, graphic design, and accounting. There were seminars full of people in my chosen field who were looking to meet possible future employees. There was discounted software, forensics training, book exchanges, and so much more I just ignored.

And I really could’ve used a lot of that.

I mean, any sort of Microsoft training is a god-send these days, especially in this job market. Hell, any sort of computer training is a HUGE plus on any resume! And a lot of them don’t expire: as newer versions come out, you just list the version you’re trained in.

This sort of free training I skipped out on way back when could cost me hundreds or thousands of dollars now!

The Almost Free, or Severely Discounted

At one point, I was given a weird offer: work security at a really shady, crappy, dirty bar for crap wages at first, and the bar would pay for me to get my security license. A job counsellor I was seeing (professionally) at the time talked me out of it.

“With your education, why would you ever even consider that?”

Well, since my degree is in Criminology, it turns out it would’ve been a damn good idea to take this offer!  Most of the jobs I’ve been looking at lately require this license. And to get it now would cost me more than $400, out of my own pocket.

Get paid minimum wage for 6 months, and get this license for free? Or pass on a paying job, and shell out $400+ to get the same license?

Yeah, looking back, this should’ve been a no-brainer.

But, I passed on the opportunity (and am still kicking myself to this day). If you have a chance to get something for a deal like this, even if it means working in a bar where the waitresses sometimes wear body paint instead of a shirt (and the male clientele are of the grabbier persuasion), go for it if you think you can handle it. I mean, I could’ve been working a nice office job with a security firm by now, if I had this damn license.

And on that note….

Get Some Certification!

If there is some sort of certificate you can get, even if it costs you a few bucks, go for it! Varying licenses, first aid and CPR, even certificates showing you can use different equipment or programs…. it’s ALL good shit! The most of this stuff you have, the better you AND your resume will look!

What’s Good For The Workplace?

We had seminars and workshops in things like Conflict Resolution and Training New Workers. Do you think I took any of that?

Well, if I did, I wouldn’t be writing about regretting not taking it, would I?

I am lucky right now. My current VERY part-time job has online learning available to us. We have to keep up with certain training modules. But aside from that, anything else we want to learn about is free for the learning.

So far, I’ve taken online classes in Conflict Resolution, dealing with problem customers, handling stressful situations, and what to do when a situation turns violent. Only problem with this? I don’t get any sort of fancy certificate in the end (although I do list them on my resume, and keep a list of them in my portfolio).

If I had taken the seminars and workshops in school, I would’ve had that little piece of paper that says “Hey, this chick KNOWS what she’s talking about! I prove it!”

Somehow, prospective employers LOVE that little piece of paper.

Classes and Clubs that Last

I joined a bunch of crap, and didn’t really do much with it. Most of my volunteering was limited to a few semesters, or a few short years.

The same went for classes. I jumped around with my interests, not really focusing on much. I wanted a taste of everything, I guess.

Now, if I had stuck with just a few clubs for many years, instead of many clubs for a year at a time, I would’ve gotten so much more out of them! That would’ve lead to things like leadership positions, more responsibilities, meeting potential references, and a lot of solid networking.

The same goes for my classes. If I had focused on something like deviance, or youth justice, I would’ve had the same few professors and teaching assistants quite a bit. I would’ve gotten to know them, gotten in good with them, gotten some good references out of them.

Instead, I went for a more broad approach. And what did I get? One reference and a lot of pointless hours as a newbie volunteer.

This isn’t a full, conclusive list of regrets. Neither is it a list of what everyone needs to do while in school. This is just the ones that have been bugging me most as of late.

As for right now, I have had one ridiculously long day (witness to two car accidents, dealing with cops at work, problem customers, and then witness to a domestic dispute on my way home from work). So I’m signing off for now, Sunshine, and setting this to post tomorrow while I’m making strange Dorito-inspired lasagna recipes with the boyfriend.

Stay glorious!

How To Choose Classes

Choosing your classes for the next semester is one of the biggest stresses and headaches you’ll have as a post-secondary student. Everyone has an opinion on what to take, your friends want to take classes with you, your advisor is telling you to take a whole other bunch of classes, and you’re torn between the “if I plan all 8am classes then I’ll HAVE to become a morning person” and “woo hoo, no classes until at least 1pm!”.

Now, I volunteered for the Academic Advising Office while I was in university. The advisers who were paid to be there (you know, the professionals) handled all of the truly hard things. They were the ones who talked to students who were worried they were going to flunk out of their program, or who wanted to change majors completely, or who were hoping to graduate soon and wanted to make sure they had all of the classes they needed all taken care of. We volunteers took care of the rest. Need to look at electives? Not sure which courses count as a Social Science and which ones are Arts? Just want someone to explain how to read your degree audit (or whatever your school calls the giant list of what classes you need to take to graduate)? That’s what we were there for.

I’m no expert when it comes to choosing classes (if I was,then I’d be one of the ones being paid to do that). But I did learn quite a few things back then that I can pass along to you now.

Figure Out What Your Required Courses Are

I know, this sounds stupid. I mean, everyone knows what classes are required, right? Well, no they don’t. The degree audit (or list) that everyone has to look over can be unbelievably confusing sometimes! For example, there are what seems like a billion rules you need to follow if you’re going to choose classes from my Alma Matter to count towards your Psychology degree. You can take 100-level (first year, mostly intro or elective courses) classes, which are usually pre-requisites for other courses (I’ll get into those next), but you can take 14. Now, that may seem like a lot. But if you need 2 Intro Psych, 2 Into Sociology, a few science courses, some arts courses, a language class or two….. these start to add up. I’ve known a lot of people who run out of 100-levels that can count towards their degree, but still have to take a few and do a little course-grade shuffling with their advisers, especially those doing double majors with one or more minor.

Then there’s the “you must take these three very specific classes”, which is easy enough to work with. There’s the “you must take four out of these nine specific classes”, which can get a little confusing. And then there’s the dreaded “you must take X number of classes from this topic, but NOT these four very specific classes”, which are always the most fun four classes on the topic. You need to know that what you are taking not only counts towards your degree, but it won’t mess up your other choices.

Look at the Requirements for your Classes

Those pre-requisite things I talked about earlier are pretty damn important. Basically, there are classes that you cannot take until you take a certain class or group of classes below it. For example, you can’t take a second year Abnormal Psychology class until you take pre-requisite classes, which would most likely be the first year Introduction to Psychology classes, and maybe another Psychology class. I had a few classes that you were not allowed to take until you were in a certain year of your program, with the total number of semesters you’ve studied being the pre-requisite.  For most classes after the first year introduction classes, there will be pre-requisites, which will most likely be the first year introduction classes. In some cases, there is even a grade pre-requisite, meaning you can’t take a certain class if you didn’t get at least a B- in a certain other class before it.

Now, there are also anti-requisites out there. If a course has anti-requisites, that means that you can only take that case OR the anti-requisite. So if there are two classes to choose from, and one of them is the pre-requisite for another class, and the two are anti-requisites….. well, that’s something you really need to look out for!

Electives and “Bird Courses”

Your electives are the classes you get to have the most choice with. In my studies, I had to take a certain number of Language classes, a certain number of Science or Computer Science classes, a certain certain number of classes from anything BUT psychology. So that gave me a whole tonne of choices…… and I wasted them. My non-psychology class requirements were filled with classes from my first degree in Criminology, but I didn’t really take advantage of my choices in that first degree. My language classes came from a then-required set of English writing classes. But my sciences were completely wasted on what my friends recommended to me, because they were “easy”. And now I totally regret that.

There is nothing wrong with picking an elective because it seems like an easy class, especially if you have a particularly difficult semester. And there’s nothing wrong with picking easy classes that seem really interesting to you. I had friends take things like Astronomy and Earth Sciences while we were in school, and they loved them. I feel like I wasted my time taking a few computer science courses that were meant for people not already enrolled in computer science, meaning they were extremely easy and basic classes. In one class, I learned what a mouse is, and how to insert a USB stick. And the worst part is, because the class was so damn easy, I barely tried in it, and got a grade that was a passing grade, but not a great grade. Basically, the “Bird Course” that was supposed to help bump up my average actually brought it down.

What do I wish I had taken? I wish I had take something that taught me how to make a website. I wish I had taken a hard science, like biology, so I could’ve taken another Forensic Science class after I took the Intro class. When I had the chance to take any class that was NOT Criminology (or later Psychology) I took a few fun classes, but I feel like I wasted a lot of classes too. I got talked into taking Philosophy classes with friends that I had no interest in. I took classes I had no interest in, just to take classes with friends, or because everyone said they were easy. There is so much more I could have done with those 10 classes, but I didn’t.

So just because all of your friends are taking a class, or they swear that a class is easy don’t sign up for it unless you really want to take it. And remember, just because your friend thinks a class is easy doesn’t mean that you will. My class in Deviant Behaviours was a breeze for me, because I’ve studied things like that for years, so I recommended it to friends as an easy Sociology/Criminology class. Turns out they didn’t find it too easy, just like I didn’t find the  Comparative Politics class they recommended to be very easy. It all depends on your interests and your previous knowledge.

Make a Few Different Schedules

Chances are, the most popular and most needed classes will fill up fast. There is always a chance that the classes you want to take won’t be available when you get the chance to register. You need a backup plan for this.

Also, making up a few different schedules lets you see which classes work best together, time-wise. The kick-ass schedule you made in the beginning may not seem so awesome once you see how much better it could be if you mix a little of schedule two and a bit of schedule three in there.

Look at Your Workload

Classes can be broken down in different ways. At my old school, some are just one long 3-hour lecture, once a week. Others are 90 minutes, twice a week. Some have a lab component that meets once a week. Figure out which ones of those work best for you, and try to take as many of them as you can.

Look at the workload too, if possible. Some classes had multiple research papers, but no final exam, which made for a very busy semester, but less stress come exam time. Others had weekly labs due. Some were a combination of both. And others were nothing more than a midterm or two, and a final exam. If you know you can crank out papers like crazy, by all means take the classes with a lot of papers and no exams. If you prefer to take tests and are best studying under pressure, then stick with the exam-only classes. I always tried to take a combination of the two, so I’d be able to put my full focus into only two or three finals instead of five (once my papers were written).

Check Your Timings

One year in the fall semester, I somehow created the Monday from hell. Three hour lecture from 11:30 – 1:30, volunteer with the advising centre from 2:30-5pm, lecture from 5:30-7pm, and then a three hour lecture from 7-10pm. It was a long-ass day, and I rarely (if ever) made it through the whole day. I got grades in the A-range for the first two classes, because I was always there for them. But that 7-10pm class……. a solid C+. I went maybe half the time. In the whole day I got a one hour break after my first class (which I usually took in the campus cafe with a friend), and another half hour between volunteer and second class. I just couldn’t manage a schedule like that every week. The rest of the week was great though (my second class also ran on Wednesdays, and I had an awesome statistics class on Thursday evenings, plus a bunch of volunteer work), and I did great on everything that was not that 7pm class.  If you know you can’t handle a long day like that, then try your best not to plan one.

Another thing to look at it the amount of time you have between classes. Not only should you have enough time to get between your classes, but you should be able to do so without breaking out into an all-out sprint. My campus was relatively small, so a 10 minute break between two classes was usually good, if I planned well. I couldn’t do a full day with only 10 minutes between each class, though. Remember to factor in your travel time, time to use the bathroom and/or grab a snack, time to talk to your professors if you need to, and time for a damn break. You can’t go full-on for 12 hours a day, every day, without burning out.

And for crying out loud, watch those early morning classes. Yes, morning classes are unavoidable sometimes. But I don’t know how many people I’ve known over the years who tried to take a bunch of morning classes to try and get used to an 8-5 schedule. I’ve even heard some advisers tell students that this is a great idea. Well I went from a 9-5 job into my career as a university student, and this crap doesn’t work. As a career woman, I was up early everyday, showered and ready for work, sitting at my desk with my cup of coffee at 8am from Monday to Friday. I was already on that schedule. School is NOT like that. I couldn’t handle 8am classes if my life depended on it. Because of the unique schedules and lifestyles of students, I’ve always found this advice to be crap. Don’t go signing up for all 8am classes, unless you absolutely have to.

Of course there will always be other things that influence your class choices too. Maybe you need to work around your work schedule. Maybe you want to take classes with a particular professor that you love, or avoid one particular professor that you hate. Maybe you want to take classes with certain classmates, or specialize in a certain aspect of your major, or have no interest in other aspects of your major. There are a bunch of things that can and will influence your choices. All I’m doing here is trying to give you a little help. Good luck with class selection, sunshine!

Scheduling and your Syllabi

Your syllabus is probably the most important document you’ll receive in a class. It’s your schedule, your contact info, your lifeline for the next semester. How many of you know how to actually use it to your advantage though?

I’ll admit, my first year in University, I didn’t pay much attention to the damn things. I’d write down in my day planner when my exams were and when papers were due. Then, I’d stick my pile of syllabi in a folder and throw my day planner in my backpack. I didn’t check it regularly, and the “F” on my transcript is my proof of that (damn you History and Politics of Asian Religions!!!!).

I wised up a bit my second year. I’d check my planner once or twice a week, keep my syllabi with my class notebooks, and thought this was good enough. Actually, this is what most students do. And this is why so many students try to write 15 page research papers in two days, pull all-nighters cramming for exams last-minute, and spend more on coffee and Monster than tuition.

This method lulls you into a false sense of scheduling security. Yes, you have everything you need written down in front of you somewhere. And yes, you actually check what needs to be done the beginning of the week. But what do you have next week? Or a month from now? Can you open your day planner to a random page from this semester and easily figure out which classes will take up the most of your time and resources at a glance?

In my third year, I came up with a system. The first week of classes, I got all of my syllabi in class or on the class websites. Then, I took a whole afternoon to go over them and start scheduling. (Come on, it’s the first week of classes. You can spare a few hours to make the next few months a little easier!) All I needed were some coloured pens, sticky notes, and a day planner.

First, each class was assigned a colour. In the day planner, go through class by class and fill in WHEN each class is. I know you think you’ll remember that you have that Post-Modern Comic Theory class every single Thursday at 1pm. In a month or two, when you’re running on no sleep and ALL the caffeine, though, you may not even remember you’re enrolled in that class, let alone when it is. This also puts it right in front of you, in writing, when you are committed to be there.

Then, for each class, make note of your exams, papers, assignments, labs, and anything else that is a part of your grade. Write down when these things are, and a detail or two about each (like exam rooms and times, paper lengths, etc). This gives you your deadlines.

Now, for each major grade event that you need extra time for (like paper writing or studying for exams), give yourself at least one weeks notice. Flip back one week in your day planner, and make a section for this. Some planners come with a Notes area each week you can use. If you don’t typically have much planned for weekends, you could always use your Sunday space for this. Or, you could use the sticky notes I said to grab. (You can never have enough sticky notes in your life). Write down the day, time, subject, and how much of your grade this is worth. This ensures you have extra notice, so things don’t creep up on you at the last minute.

And now, VERY CAREFULLY read through each syllabus. Each syllabus is your professor’s notes to you on how to get as high a grade as possible. Take a page in your planner and write down each professor’s contact information, office hours, the course you are taking with them, and the course time and place. Then, read their instructions. Some professors will throw in exactly what they expect for assignments, or a grading rubric to help you plan our papers. They also give details about your exams, like if the final exam is cumulative, or only covers materials you learned since the mid-term.  Some will break down exactly what chapters to read each week, what online material to look up, and what they expect to cover in their lectures each week. Make note of ALL of this! You need to know what you’ll have to do before each class, or else you can’t actually do it.

I know this seems like a lot to do all at once. This is the simplified version of what I did for three years, though, and what a lot of friends and colleagues have said have worked best for them. When my schedule got really tight (4-5 classes, two jobs, 6 volunteer positions, fraternity events, family obligations, sleeping, eating…..), I used a day planner, a one-month wall calendar, a 4 month wall planner, a system of 4 separate To-Do lists, and email reminders to keep everything straight. Compared to all of that, this is a walk in the park.

This also helps make your semester run a little more smoothly. Imagine, never checking your schedule on Monday to find out you have a paper due Wednesday that you forgot about; never again forgetting about your Monday midterm until Saturday night; never missing a party because you have to pull an all-nighter to finish an assignment you forgot. Sure, this will take a few hours to get done in one day. But think of all the money you’ll save on energy drinks, caffeine pills, coffee, and everything else you’ve been using to keep you up for those last-minute all-nighters.

Most of all, think of all the stress you can save yourself by giving up one afternoon to write stuff down with pretty coloured pens. You can plan things out like those real grown-ups you see in the movies, with their leather-bound planners and appointment books, snootily telling people “sorry, I need at least 3 weeks notice. I’m already all booked. Are you free in May? I may have an opening in May sometime.” This one afternoon with your day planner could be all it takes to put you on the path to becoming Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.……. or it could at least free up enough time for you to remember you love that movie, and actually watch it again.

Communication is Key In Roommate Relations

So this isn’t an ideal situation, but at the moment I am a young woman living with 4 men. Two are undergrad students who answered an ad we placed online; one is doing his Masters in Engineering and has lived here for years; and one is our landlord, my boyfriend, and the only one of them not in school at the moment. I thought, being the only girl in the house, there would be quite a lot of awkwardness on my part.

Well, turns out I’m not the awkward one (for once).

Sure, I keep about 30 products too many in the bathroom (neatly put away, though). And I have a few plants around the house (most of which are in my room, and are actually a Chia Herb Garden). And I decorate the house for the Christmas holidays (since I’m the only one home here for weeks at a time around then). But I make everything clear to anyone my actions may impact. I try to clean up after myself, keep my messes contained to my bedroom, and try to limit the number of shoes I keep by the front door (something others seem to clearly have problems with). All I ask is that, if I do something that bothers someone, that they let me know.

Not everyone here lives like that, though.

When the boys in the basement make a mess of the kitchen, blast music while they cook, and throw non-recyclables in the recycling pile, I speak up when I see them. To me, it’s common sense. I let them know if they leave a mess, or they don’t sort things right. If I don’t tell them, how else will they know it’s a problem?

My roommate doesn’t seem to subscribe to the same logic. Guys leave a mess in the kitchen? Come and complain to me. Guys put Styrofoam containers in the recycling bin again? He throws a fit in the kitchen, takes them out, and complains to me about it. What doesn’t he do? Mention any of this to the guys downstairs!

If a roommate is doing something that pisses you off, you need to talk to them about it. Chances are, they have no clue that you have a problem with their actions or behaviour. If you come to them with the little things, before they balloon into something bigger, it also makes it easier to talk about. I mean, what would you rather do: remind your roommate that they have to clear their hair our of the shower drain after their shower so it doesn’t clog? Or get into a screaming match when the shower drain is clogged beyond belief and you’re both running late and can’t shower?

When it comes to roommate living, communication is key. You need to communicate what is working in your living arrangement, and what isn’t working. If you don’t, then you’ll both just wind up miserable and constantly pissing each other off.

Follow Through With Your Plans

So you have a plan. That’s fantastic! You know pretty much what you want to do after graduation, what your chosen career path is, and/or what you want to do with the rest of your life.

So how to you follow through with all this?

For a lot of careers,getting a degree just isn’t good enough. You need a totally kick-ass CV and/or resume, with loads of entries on it showing why you would be the most obvious choice for a job in this field. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. Yeah, it’s kinda not.

You see, need to create epic aura of awesomeness that not only makes you perfect for this specific job, but also doesn’t make you perfect for ONLY this specific job. You need to make yourself seem like some secret super soldier created specifically for this job, but also for other jobs in that field that you may want to apply for. Basically, you need to show that you are perfect across the board.

No pressure, right?

Calm down. There are a few universal things that you can do, no matter what your career goal is:

  1. Leadership! Show that you’re not only great at taking directions, but that you can give directions to others. Join a club that interests you, and get yourself into a position of leadership. Anything from President of the Psychology Association to the Event Planning Chair of the Local Hippie Coalition works for this. Anything that gives you the power to give orders to others is good.
  2. Financial Responsibility! Chances are, at some point in your career, you will have to work with a budget. You may have to create a budget, keep track of petty cash, delegate funds for other projects, or oversee a large project on a budget. Do something specific that shows that you know how to do this already. Join a club (or just use your position in the last point), and plan an event. Make sure you work with a budget, and can track everything. And hey, now you also have experience in event planning! That’s TWO skills in one point! Bonus!
  3. Computer Skills! Obviously, someone in a Computer Science program will already have plenty of experience with computers. I mean, it’s right there in the program name. Criminology? Math? Political Science? Nothing there screams “I’m not a technological failure”. You need to up your skills, and make sure they are marketable. First off, know your Microsoft Office programs. It never hurts to get certification in programs like Word or Excel. Next, work on programs that are needed in your specific field. Things like statistical analysis have a few programs used by pretty much everyone in the field. If your field has programs like this, then you damn well better them!

Now that you have these few things taken care of, lets take a look at your actual course work. Do you know exactly what you need to get into your chosen career?  Some jobs require grad school, a doctorate, special certification, or co-op/internship experience. Does yours?

It’s best to do research into your field early. Ideally, as soon as you know what it is you want, you would start your research. If you require a graduate or doctorate degree, then you need to also start researching how to apply for these programs. You also need to know what the admission requirements are. Some schools require tests like GRE or LSATs, a large number of letters of recommendation, or admission essays. Know what is required.

Certification requires knowing where and when to test, what knowledge is needed, and where to get study material. Sometimes, it’s only a matter of sitting through a workshop. Other times, you need to take a series of tests. For my Advanced Certificate in Microsoft Excel, I took three workshops (basic, intermediate, and advanced levels), with a series of small assignments during them. To get actual Microsoft Certification from Microsoft, there are special certification tests that have to be administered at very specific locations, by specially trained administrators. Make sure you are actually getting what you need when you sign up for these.

And finally, take a look at the courses you’re taking. Even within your program, you can show specialization or expand your knowledge. In my Criminology program, I chose to take a very broad range of topics that could all apply to my chosen area of research. I took courses in Youth in Criminal Justice, Victimology, Penology, Social Deviation, and Policing and Security. I also took a series of Psychological Development courses, Social Justice, Morality, and both Quantitative and Qualitative Research. All of this is to aide in my research into school shootings and trends in violence and blame. At the same time, I also did courses in Business, Philosophy, Computer Concepts, and Political Science. These gave me a broader range of knowledge, more marketable skills, and gave me a chance to broaden my network. It’s best to also try to do a combination of both of these (specific, and broad).

So, to sum up quickly, you need to make yourself as marketable as possible in your chosen field. Make sure you have all the education and skills you need for your career, and make sure you know what you actually need for that career.

Do You Have A Plan?

I mean beside, “Graduate, find a job, make money”.

So many students go into their post-secondary schooling without any sort of plan in place. It’s almost like they’re on autopilot. Going to college or university just seemed like the logical next step after graduating high school, or not finding their dream job after a few years.

There’s also the outside pressure from friends, family, and “experts” to get some sort of degree. It’s like people seem to think that getting some sort of piece of paper will make the job offers come flying in. I’ve even heard the “advice” that it doesn’t matter what your degree is in, as long as you have a degree.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

Now, you don’t need to have a concrete plan, set in stone, laying out every educational and career move you plan to make in the next five years. You should have some sort of idea of what you’re getting yourself into. You can’t go into this whole “planning the rest of your life” thing blind.

Do you have an idea of what career you want after graduation? If so, that’s great! Make sure you’re on the right track to get there. (I’ll have a whole post next week about how to do this) Not so much? That’s ok too.  Not everyone knows exactly what they want out of life. The main things to focus on are to not panic, and to not pigeon hole yourself into such a small niche that you have no options to look to.

Do you have a major topic of study? Many students spend a year or two as an “undeclared” major, or in a “general arts/science” program. And that’s perfectly fine. If you’re not sure of what you want, then don’t rush into something you could totally regret. It’s perfectly fine to take a variety of courses in order to find out what it is that really gets you going. You may find that you have an undiscovered love of statistics, or geology, or quantitative research. Taking a little time to explore could help you discover your true passions.

Do you have no idea whatsoever what you want to do, but you’re in school anyway because it’s what you’re supposed to do? Then maybe you need to take a little time out here. So many people get pushed into university by well-meaning people and advice, when what they would benefit most from is going into a skilled trade. Or they rush into getting a degree when what they really want is to be a chef. Or they get a job with a company, and would love to just work their way up the chain there, but are pressured to give that up to go to school.

Not everyone needs to run out and get a degree! If you really have no clue what you want to do, or you have a career goal that some seem to see as non-traditional, then maybe you need to take a little time off to figure things out. Some people travel, or take time to explore different career options. I’ve known people who took time off and worked for cruise lines, department stores, garages, fast food restaurants. Some of them found a career path they loved. Others found something they thought they would love, and instead hated with the fiery passion of a thousand supernova-ing suns. Either way, they found something about themselves, and were able to either create or narrow-down their career path.

So do you have a plan? If so, congrats! You’re ahead of myself, and about 3/4 of the people I know. You don’t? That’s ok too. Just make sure not to pigeon hole yourself out of options.